Tajha Chappellet-Lanier here, enjoying being the only current user of my low-bandwidth rural internet after a week during which my out-of-town visitors and I were constantly kicking each other off Zoom calls. An internet speed test says my connection “should be able to handle multiple devices streaming HD videos at the same time.” But I can tell you, from personal experience, that’s just not the case.
It is this kind of experiential knowledge that Assemblymember Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, was interested in gathering through a partnership with San Jose State University’s Lurie College of Education. Rivas approached San Jose State, his alma mater, about collecting data on broadband availability and access within District 30—that data is now providing the evidentiary backbone for Assembly Bill 14, which would allow local educational institutions to report on the device and internet connectivity needs of their students.
One part of this research, undertaken by the San Jose State Spatial Analytics and Visualization (SAVi) Center, was the creation of a series of maps showing the gap between where internet is available and where users are located. The maps highlight areas where there is both a high number of school-age children or a high number of minority residents and limited broadband services—the darker red the geographical region, the more attention and investment it needs.
The other part of the research is more story-driven. For that part, assistant professors of teacher education Luis Poza, Tammie Visintainer and Eduardo Muñoz-Muñoz teamed up with five teachers at Watsonville High School’s Education, Community, Humanitarian, Outreach (ECHO) Leadership Academy to undertake a project in what’s called “participatory action research.”
Starting in the fall of 2020, when it became clear that pandemic-driven distance learning was going to continue for a while, 175 ECHO Leadership Academy students started conducting interviews with Watsonville community members, asking questions like “how has the Covid-19 pandemic changed your need for internet connectivity?” and “what are some of the specific challenges you deal with related to internet access?”
In all the students conducted more than 350 interviews, 60 of which were chosen at random to be transcribed.
The finding? The existence of internet infrastructure does not guarantee access. The SAVi mapping shows that Watsonville’s school district is a “served” or “well-served” area when it comes to the presence of internet service providers and the speeds those providers offer. However, interviewees still struggled to connect. The high cost of high-speed internet is one issue, as is bandwidth strained by multiple users. “Since there are now three other people in my household doing online school work, the connection has been a lot slower and sometimes I will get kicked out of meetings and miss part of the lecture,” one interviewee said.
Lack of access, where infrastructure is available, maps on to other social inequities around race, class and income. “I think it’s kind of ironic because we’re in a place that’s supposed to be the highest of technology and yet to lower-income families and to people that don’t live near the city, they don’t have access to it,” another student observed. “I've been seeing how there’s more gentrification that’s coming into where we live so it kind of makes me mad because the wealthy that are moving here have the chance to actually get good internet while us who have lived here since we were babies don't.”
It’s a good reminder that solving the digital divide isn’t just about laying more cable or sending more satellites into space. As my colleagues and I have written many times before in this space—Covid-19 didn’t create social inequities so much as it has exposed them for all to see. The internet access disparities revealed both qualitatively and quantitatively in this research aren’t surprising. But knowing something is true, and having the data to prove that knowledge, are two different things. Now that we have this data, let’s use it.